The Initiative
To End Grade Inflation

Events |Current Environment in Higher Education |Academic Assessment Policy  |An Unusual Coincidence  |Reality of Grade Inflation  |Goals for Improvement  |Integrated Approach to Academic Assessment |Conclusions

WELCOME to The Initiative to End Grade Inflation in higher education

The Initiative is an attempt to restore validity to the academic transcript through honest presentation of student academic performance. This can be accomplished through the proper use of the national accreditation agencies' policy of academic assessment. The implementation of successful assessment policies should follow the four step problem solving process endorsed by American business. Academic assessment should align itself with the accountability movement now widespread in educational levels K-12, a movement that gained considerable focus and momentum from the No Child Left Behind Act signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Events Prompting this Effort

In October, 2001 the Boston Globe printed an article entitled: Harvard's Quiet Secret: Rampant Grade Inflation. The article reported a record 91% of Harvard University students were awarded honors during the spring graduation. Said one student, Trevor Cox, "I've coasted on far higher grades than I deserve. It's scandalous. You can get very good grades and earn honors, without ever producing quality work." Previously, Harvard's Dr. Harvey Mansfield spoke out publicly against grade inflation in the April, 2001 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article Grade Inflation: It's Time to Face the Facts reveals a willingness on his part to take a public stand on the issue. In quoting: "There is something inappropriate--almost sick--in the spectacle of mature adults showering young people with unbelievable praise. We are flattering our students in our eagerness to get their good opinion. American colleges used to set their own expectations. Now, increasingly, they react to student expectations." Additional commentaries include: "Once graduates enter the job market, they discover they can't bank on those undeserved grades." - Christian Science Monitor - November 6th, 2001. "The effect of grade inflation is a devaluing of undergraduate degrees." - Levine and Cureton, 1998. "It is a societal trend to de-emphasize competition and make people feel better about themselves." - Dr. Perry Zirkel, Lehigh University. "A bachelor of arts degree in 1997 may not be the equal of a graduation certificate from an academic high school in 1947" - Wall Street Journal, January 30th, 1997.

In February, 2002 the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published results of a two year study on grade inflation in American colleges and universities conducted by Henry Rosovsky and Mathew Hartley. The report Evaluation and the Academy: Are We Doing the Right Thing? finds grade inflation existent nationwide. Authors predict: "compression in grades will create a system of grades in which A's predominate and in which letters (of recommendation) consist primarily of praise. Meaningful distinctions will have disappeared."

Since 2002 criticism has intensified. In 2003 the American Association of Colleges and Universities released the results of a three-year evaluation of the situation in Great Expectations. They found undergraduate education in sad need of improvement. In 2006 the U.S. Department of Education released A Test of Leadership - Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education. Findings agree with the AAC&U. The need for greater transparency and accountability to the public is repeatedly emphasized.

In 1995 J. E. Stone published an analysis of the situation in Education Policy Analysis Archives - Vol. 3/No. 11 titled: Inflated Grades, Inflated Enrollment, and Inflated Budgets: An Analysis and Call for Review at the State Level. Dr. Stone states that "15% of college graduates would not have earned a diploma by mid 1960s standards." The annual cost to the state of Tennessee was estimated at $100 million dollars.

In 2011 authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa stated that 45% of undergraduates do not improve their academic skills during the first two years of college. By graduation, 36% have not learned anything. Academically Adrift Limited Learning on College Campuses.

Additional books published on the topic include:

Virtually everything said about higher education in America is now derogatory.

The Current Environment in Higher Education

In April, 2001 the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement invited the National Center for Post-secondary Improvement (NCPI) at Stanford University to identify the most pressing issues confronting higher education. In October, 2003 results were released in Beyond Dead Reckoning: Research Priorities for Redirecting American Higher Education. The report begins with historical perspectives including A Nation at Risk, a report released in the 1980s which focused on the declining quality of learning in the nation's primary and secondary schools. A second, and according to NCPI perhaps the most influential, report titled: Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of American Higher Education, identified the need for higher academic expectations, enhanced student involvement, and for the assessment of learning. The basic question: Access to What? is critically analyzed in light of economic and academic perspectives. Economically, the report finds that "While state appropriations per full-time equivalent student declined by 4 percent from 1978 to 1998, net tuition revenue per FTE student rose by 66 percent. - Page 6. As the accountability movement has swept through state legislatures, policy-makers have made concerted efforts to extend post-secondary access for diverse populations as well as to effect improvements in student achievement and institutional performance. - Page 7. What policy makers have not found is a means of ensuring that public funds invested in higher education in fact promote effective learning and advance key obligations within the social charter. - Page 7. Most colleges and universities have not developed institutional definitions of educational quality (Page 10). In spite of 15 years of the (academic) assessment movement and increasingly vocal demands for improved student learning, few institutions actually use assessment results, and their fundamental practices of teaching have remained largely unchanged. Moreover, everyone - policymakers as well as institutional leaders - are all in favor of improvements in learning, yet there is little agreement about how to achieve them. - Page 11. While assessment programs imposed in several states have pressed institutions to develop better measures of student learning, NCPI research has shown that these programs have not been successful." - Page 14.

Between 2001 and 2013 nothing has changed except that tuition has steadily increased while learning outcomes continue to decline. In 2012 average tuition rose by 8 percent. NBC Nightly News, March 23rd, 2103.

The Policy of Academic Assessment

Academic assessment is now required of those institutions of higher education evaluated by the accreditation agencies, North Central, Western, Southern, etc., that wish to continue their accreditation status. Most on-line Universities are not accredited. They operate by their own standards, the most important of which is to generate income, especially from federal student aid. Assessment, in theory, stands in close agreement with the accountability movement in educational levels K-12. North Central Accreditation Agency oversees the largest geographical region in the United States accrediting institutions along a line roughly extending from Arizona to West Virginia and north to the Canadian border. In a progress report, Celia Lopez, formerly of The Higher Learning Commission, stated: "Since 1989, NCA (North Central) has made and continues to make a major commitment to the assessment of student learning. The (Higher Learning) Commission's commitment proceeds from its belief that assessment of student academic achievement is key (1) to improving student learning, (2) to enabling an institution to verify that it is being accountable to its internal and external constituents, and (3) to documenting to the general public and interested parties the value of investing in higher education." Course grades are not considered valid measures of academic assessment by The Higher Learning Commission, indicating perhaps, that grades are not trustworthy. Valid assessment measures include, but are not limited to, national tests, portfolios, senior seminar classes and exit interviews.

An Unusual Coincidence

The debate over the existence of grade inflation is concluded. There is no longer doubt about its existence which is now documented on the web site: The graphs presented below were downloaded from this web site. The first shows an unusual coincidence in that the initial current rise in the GPA for all institutions can trace its beginnings to the same time period that marked the origin of NCA's commitment to the policy of academic assessment, approximately 1989. A cause and effect relation in all likelihood does not exist between these two events. However, academic assessment has failed to control grade inflation. In fact, inflation seems to thrive in the current climate, this in spite of persistent and widespread efforts toward meeting assessment goals as stated by The Higher Learning Commission. Perhaps it is time for assessment to turn its efforts toward eliminating grade inflation while at the same time work toward meeting its first goal, that of improved student learning.

The Reality of Grade Inflation

The damaging effects of grade inflation on society are becoming increasingly apparent. Re-curing events testify to its negative, even dangerous impact:

The December, 2002 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education reported results of a National Student Engagement Survey that found nineteen percent of full-time freshman spend only 1 to 5 hours per week preparing for classes. Seniors who answered the same survey reported studying even less than freshman. Professors say that too many of their students are focused on grades rather than on learning. Students who create detailed logs of their study time discover that they spend a lot of time that adds up to nothing. This trend continues to the present. Authors Arum and Roska report a steady decline in student academic effort since the 1960's. Academically Adrift Limited Learning on College Campuses - 2011.

In April, 2003 The National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges found that writing ability among students is bad. C. Peter Magrath, commission chair and president of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, called it "a very serious matter for our society."

The June 19th, 2003 NBC nightly news reported on reading comprehension of students in America's schools. After reading text material describing the federal income tax, many young people could not determine why tax forms are to be mailed by April 15th. The answer? Because that is when they are due. The conclusion? "The situation is a threat to this society."

At this point an argument can be made that appropriate levels of literacy now stand in jeopardy of serious decline. The National Commission on Writing calls writing the forgotten r. However, math scores are not any better and reading ability is termed a threat to this society. This is not helping America to fair well in the global economy, an economy that increasingly emphasizes the importance of skills and knowledge.

The NCPI report - 2002 - finds: "higher education's performance for the most part has fallen short of fostering an engaged citizenry. Recent evidence indicates that today's college graduates are actually less engaged in the civic life of the nation than were preceding generations. More generally, the purposes of a college education have become primarily private and personal rather than public and societal. - pages 3 & 4. Given The societal proclivity to regard higher education as a private good and students as consumers, research needs to examine the impact of students exercising their prerogatives as shoppers." - page 20. NCPI warns "Globalization necessitates that colleges and universities prepare their students to be citizens of the world, who understand the serious challenges of competitiveness and interdependence that come in its wake. Globalization also prompts institutional leaders and policymakers alike to rethink their reach and their boundaries -- a focus that has become increasingly salient as the World Trade Organization defines the extent to which distributed education is to be a freely traded good." - page 24.

Similar statements continue into the present. See: The State of Missouri - Economic Issues.


Given this environment, the following goals are attainable and preferable to the current situation now wide spread throughout much of higher education.


1. To eliminate grade inflation from higher education through improved use of academic assessment.

2. To reach agreement on measures of academic assessment that meet the goals stated by North Central's Higher Learning Commission. These are: i) to improve student learning, ii) to provide accountability to external and internal constituents, and iii) to convince the public of the value of investing in higher education.

Current Status of HLC's Goals of Assessment

Goal number one has not been met. NCPI - 2003, refers to increasingly vocal demands for improved student learning. - page 11. "Critics regularly question the learning exhibited by college graduates" - page 3. Arum and Roksa - 2011, report that student effort toward learning has steadily declined since the early 1960's. The extent to which goal number two has succeeded is highly questionable. In a July, 2002 keynote address Steven Crow, then Executive Director of The Higher Learning Commission, told his audience "We seem to be congenitally incapable of providing clear, crisp descriptions of what we do and why. Simple requests for data are usually met with, Well it is a very complex situation that makes good data difficult to provide. This is a huge industry, operating in a global setting and absorbing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot get from it consistent information about much of anything." The success of goal number three depends on meeting the first two. Hence it is a failure. NCPI finds: "What has diminished is an awareness of the implicit social charter linking the nation's colleges and universities, both to one another and to the society as a whole." - page 4.


3. To implement effective measures of academic assessment which bring well-defined purpose to the policy enabling assessment to meet its stated goals. The importance of assessment is described in A Test of Leadership - 2006 and can hardly be stated in stronger terms. Design and implementation should follow the four step process for problem solving adopted by American business. The process consists of a plan, do, check, act cycle that defines the issue, creates methods to solve the problem, implements these methods and measures performance, then establishes feedback loops that measure success or demonstrate need for improvement. Academic assessment, as stated by The Higher Learning Commission, is to establish feedback loops in order to improve educational quality. However, NCPI research finds that "few institutions actually use assessment results." - page 11.

Additional Goals Should be added to Academic Assessment

These include:

4. To provide on the academic transcript a consistent, fair and accurate portrayal of the extent of subject mastery as defined by textbook content and master syllabi.

5. To ensure that evaluation of academic performance provides clear and meaningful feed-back to students showing both their academic strengths and also their weaknesses.

An Integrative Approach to Academic Assessment

Any successful approach to academic assessment should include clarity and simplicity in presenting actual level of content mastery by students on the academic transcript but should not simultaneously increase faculty work load. Evaluation of student academic performance should be fair and consistent across departments and disciplines, across programs of delivery within an individual institution as well as between different institutions. In some cases, notably on military bases, several institutions offer degree programs concurrently while students transfer repeatedly as they complete course work toward graduation. Academic assessment must accommodate these situations. Internet based courses offer a still-wider variety of options for students to choose from. A successful strategy will select appropriate assessment methods and put them together into a coherent plan that produces desired results. Assessment should not impinge on faculty work loads. Ideally such an approach should meet all goals of academic assessment recommended by The Higher Learning Commission as well as the two additional goals stated above.

Consequences of the Status Quo

If allowed to persist, grade inflation will, in all likelihood, simply continue in its current trend toward increasingly elevated GPAs on the academic transcript. The web site chronicles the history of this increase up to 2007. The rate of increase is currently estimated at 0.14/decade. However, accelerated use of the internet as a delivery system for higher education can be expected to augment this increase, perhaps significantly. Current practices of academic assessment do not lend themselves well to reducing the extent of grade inflation in situations other than traditional, on-campus programs with stable student populations. Even then, considerable effort is required, and results are often only temporary.


Grade inflation does exist in higher education and is accompanied by a decrease in motivation toward learning. As the GPA creeps ever higher the value of the degree continues to drop. This occurs as its cost in tuition steadily rises. Extrinsic motivation toward learning is not producing the desired result of improved student learning. This situation is now widespread throughout the U. S. It is entrenched in current thinking. To date, attempts toward improvement have not been successful. - NCPI page 14 . America does not need this. America does not want this. America has it none-the-less. For these simple reasons, higher education now stands in jeopardy of violating its social charter, its responsibility of educating the citizens of American society to a level that will permit effective competition in the global economy.